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Work life ‘balance’ – fact or fantasy?

Jocelyn Brewer, Psychologist and Teachers Health ambassador

Think for a moment about a trapeze artist, lithe and strong, balancing cautiously on just a thin cable inching their way along to the relative safety of the other side.

Or a seal with a ball poised on the tip of its nose, working hard to hold it steady and receive a reward of a fishy treat.

What do you notice?  That ‘balance’ is somewhat tricky and totally removed from the hustle, and messiness of your daily life? That once you finally attain that elusive balance it’s gone within about 17 seconds, and the quest to regain it starts over again?

Folks, we have been sold another fantasy. This time that ‘balance’ in the context of work + life exists, let alone it’s something to aspire to. The notion of balance is a sneaky cousin to the other fictional concept that we can ‘have it all’.  I personally don’t want it ‘all’, I just want the best bits with an occasional sleep in on Sundays! 

What do we really mean when we talk about ‘balance’?

Balance might be attainable if you have additional limbs like Hindu Goddess Laksmi (who is also revered for having a very clean house!), have managed to hack the space/time continuum, or simply pay to outsource the admin tasks that upset the ‘life’ half of the work/life scales. For the rest of us mortal humans it’s an impractical fabrication that only serves to undermine us.

Unpacking the language we use is valuable. By looking more deeply at the words used to set up expectations of how life should look – a combination of working hard (but not too hard and without favouring work over ‘life’) while being able to ‘down tools’ to serve others (usually our families).  While balance is superficially about wellbeing and health, the pursuit of it can create just the opposite.

Why balance shouldn’t be the goal

Balance is static. When you’re ‘balancing’ it’s hard, if not impossible, to move forward (and you certainly can’t move with any pace). It requires you to put all of your energy into remaining in balance, which means you have nothing left to create, respond or react to opportunities that come your way.

Balance is unnatural. Nothing in nature stays the same, everything is responding and changing, even on a microlevel. We live in a complex cascade of cycles -- ups and downs (of air pressure systems), ins and outs (of the tides), rises and falls (of the sun and moon) and need to respond and adapt to rhythms.

Balance is binary. You either have it or you don’t. When you don’t have it, you’re chasing it, when you have it, you’re stagnant, trapped trying to maintain it. Changing the aim, changes the game. Making the aim about intention, purpose and boundaries means you get to choose what you spend your time and energy on.

Balance is a buzzword. We have better words that we can use than this, words that have richer meaning, that resonate more deeply and have more personal impact than hounding something that will only further trap and defeat your authentic goals and intentions.

What we should aim for instead

For me it’s about being able to juggle without the struggle and joyfully accepting that life comes invariably with a range of irregularities (sayonara routine), can be unpredictable (in the best and worst kinds of ways) and ripe with opportunities (which can be difficult to decline). 

Setting sounder boundaries. Boundaries are about self-respect, honouring yourself and your values. Having the courage to say ‘no, thank you’ to things that don’t serve you (your goals or your sanity) is incredibly important. Boundaries help you set weekly, monthly or seasonal rhythms and build gateways which allow the things (and people) you choose into your life. Ask yourself: what deserves my time?

Being responsive and resourceful.  For many teachers and education executives, our school terms and/or semesters come with demanding marking and report-writing cycles. Accepting and anticipating these times will be busier than others helps us set and manage expectations and then prioritise time to rest, reward yourself and recuperate (hello, school holidays!). It’s important to be prepared, well-resourced and willing to call in support around these times, it might mean that compromises around daily routines (like sleep, cooking or cleaning) happen in order to run hard and fast at a goal or deadline. Ask yourself: Am I ready and resourced to ace the busy and potentially stressful when it is presented?

Blending with intention. Perhaps we can think beyond balance and instead in terms of getting the blend attuned to our goals.  Like your favourite tea, with the goldilocks ‘just right’ combination of flavours and essences, creating the blend of what keeps you well, whole and thriving feels like a much more empowered, centred and sustainable model for living a meaningful life than that of the solo trapeze artist or zoo-captive seal. Ask yourself: what factors can I combine to create a life blend that supports my wellbeing?

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To hear more from Jocelyn, visit jocelynbrewer.com